The results of Afghanistan's parliamentary elections announced this week were an anti-climax, coming two months later and tainted by an avalanche of fraud and vote-rigging allegations. But returns from one of the country's 34 provinces were not certified, and that's where things get interesting. In Ghazni, a Taliban stronghold with an ethnic Pasthun majority, preliminary results apparently show that the Hazara minority swept the polls by claiming all 11 seats. Given the eastern province's mixed demography, it's widely agreed the improbable outcome stems from the insecurity that kept tens of thousands of Pashtuns away from the polls. Much as the Afghan government and its foreign backers want to move on, there are now fears that if corrective steps are not taken, the country's largest ethnic group could be further isolated to the Taliban's advantage.
While the threat of violence had an impact across most of Afghanistan when people went to the polls on Sept. 18, it caused paralysis in Ghazni. According to U.S. military officers based here, there were at least 23 attacks on election day. Of these, more than half took place in Andar, a volatile district where only four voting stations were open. The dearth of stations here was emblematic of other Pashtun-dominated areas in the province, they say, and in the end it didn't matter: a total of three people cast votes. Shahbas Khan, 32, a Pashtun shopkeeper, said going to the polls was out of the question due to the militants' pre-election warnings that participants would be harmed. He called it "a big show" staged by the government and NATO despite foreknowledge that a free and fair process was impossible. As a U.S. officer later admitted to TIME, "We weren't surprised when no one showed up."
Hazaras, meanwhile, turned out in droves. Having suffered terribly under the Sunni-Muslim, largely Pashtun Taliban regime, the Shi'ite minority has rebounded since late 2001 to secure greater constitutional rights and gain an outsized stake in the fledgling democracy. Their success in Ghazni extended to other provinces like neighboring Wardak, another mostly Pashtun province, that yielded the Hazaras, who have a sizeable presence there, three of five seats. Informed for the first time of the landslide results, some Pashtuns in Ghazni said they don't have a problem with the idea of non-Pasthun's representing them; it's their trust in the Afghan government and its claims to democracy that is being lost. "We're all brothers in Islam," says Abdul Hadir, 35, a local mullah, speaking among an ethnically mixed crowd in the village of Arazu. "Our problem is with leaders that have forgotten us all and play games."
Indeed, ethic tension seems beside the point. In recent weeks protests have come from all sides over sundry election irregularities. Nearly a quarter of 5.6 million votes have been tossed out, while the Afghan attorney general has called for a broad investigation into systemic fraud. Although the Independent Election Commission is eager to draw a close to an election that has sullied the reputation of the parliament as well as its own, it is still hesitant to endorse Ghazni's lopsided results over concerns such a move could backfire. In what may be a bid to shape the dispute in favor of the president's allies, members of the Karzai administration have already warned that the insurgency would likely profit in contested areas, a prospect Pashtun candidates on the losing end have no doubts about.
Khial Mohammad Hossaini, a Pashtun candidate from Ghazni who did not win election, is convinced the vote was rigged by "foreign hands" and ethnic Tajik-led northerners who don't want any Pashtuns in government, though he doesn't stop there. "[President] Karzai is Pashtun, but you cannot count on him," he says. "It's not because of security, it's because they don't want us to be elected as parliamentarians," adding that there "are lots of countries involved. Of course, it will cause violence in Ghazni because these people will not trust the government and will stir trouble and help the Taliban." According to Haroun Mir, an independent analyst in Kabul, this is not to be dismissed as just another angry politician's bluster. "Security-wise," he says, "I think [the reaction among Pashtuns] will be a big problem."
This leaves Afghan authorities with a difficult choice: They can certify the Ghazni results next week, as some election officials have said, and chance the consequences; or, have a re-run in Ghazni sometime in the near future. Yet with Taliban influence still prevalent and a hard winter approaching, there's little reason to believe conditions will be any better the second time around. Shah Jahan, an ethnic Hazara and projected winner from the province, maintains that while militant intimidation surely undermined the Pashtun turnout, anti-Hazara vote-rigging was also a reality in core parts of Ghazni, where some voting stations reportedly ran out of ballots. The existing results should therefore be accepted. "Even if a re-re-run happens, the result will be the same as it is now," he says.
Angling for a solution, some Western officials have suggested appointing Pashtuns to seats in the upper house of parliament, or staff positions in the provincial government. Karzai supporters, for their part, favor allowing the exiting MPs from Ghazni, most of whom are Pashtun, to stay in office until a re-vote is completed. Others have talked of waiting until the spring to do a second round, but there again the picture remains bleak. That's just the time fighting tends to pick up, and in the intervening weeks other candidates claiming to have lost due to Taliban threats could make their case to be included. Would-be winners would then fight back, potentially pulling the country deeper into gridlock. That's to say nothing of the fatalism shared by some disenfranchised Pashtuns, who say there's really no point in elections at all with more pressing concerns at hand. "Our main problem here is the same," says Shahbas, the shopkeeper who didn't vote. He was referring to the Taliban, without naming names.
With reporting from Shah Barakzai/Kabul